Xzibit hasn't released an album in six years, a period he mainly spent installing hot tubs in sedans. Now, after one label bounce and a couple of false starts, the rapper has finally dropped Napalm on an unsuspecting and largely unconcerned world. After all, it's been a long time since 2000's Up in Smoke Tour, which introduced Xzibit to CD-hoarding white teens, and his acting efforts never put him in the league of Ice Cube or even Ice-T. There were rumors of tax evasion; there were public splits with old smoking buddies. Most of all, there were no records, which is poor form for a guy who built an early rep for the hard grind.
On the new album, Xzibit has some choice words for the programming bigwigs at MTV who cancelled Pimp My Ride, which the rapper hosted: "I hated MTV for tryin' to play me like a mockery/But that don't bother me/I just fulfill my fuckin' contract/A small price to pay just to get your peace of mind back." Otherwise, his trademark blunt aggression sidesteps self-pity and suggests a certain degree of maturation. Lyrically, the album is dense, occasionally overwhelmingly so, an arresting volley of one-liners, internal rhymes, and extended diatribes spat with pleasing vigor. Beat-wise, "X to the Z" (because he relishes referring to himself in exponential terms) behaves as though the last six years never happened: none of that Eurobeat business, and only the tiniest hint of an Auto-Tune flourish. Napalm comes on in old-school fashion, with beats as mere vehicles for lyrics, and lyrics that work on a reassuring number of levels. Guest spots are sparing and well-chosen. Certain tracks could have appeared on a vintage Wu-Tang album.
While the first single, "Up Out the Way," and "Louis XIII," produced by Dr. Dre, both go in one ear and out the other, other songs stick. Veteran producer Rick Rock mans most of the album's tracks, including the two most memorable party anthems, "Enjoy the Night" and "Dos Equis." The Akon-produced "Movies," meanwhile, begins with a '50s-style cinematic horn flourish before a synth/drum/bass figure kicks in and Game offers some useful couplets ("All these eyes lookin' through peepholes/That's why I don't trust nobody but God and Tim Tebow"), as does X, who strings a semi-coherent verse out of a straight series of film titles. The hooks throughout the album are less memorable than the verses, which boast impressive extended rhymes and a rhythm-flipping sensibility that smacks of early Busta Rhymes.
The question of personal growth may not interest X's audience, who never expected much in that department, but that audience has sought more prolific pastures anyway. Napalm involves less rough sex than previous albums, its dexterous versification reserved for something very much like politics. "Nothin' ever compares with the strength of a free mind/You'll find the most dangerous weapon ever acquired by mankind/Use it to fight for your freedom/And oppress your oppressors," Xzibit advises on "Everything." As an inspirational case study, he gestures to his own lucre: "Look where it took me/And make that money stack higher than giraffe pussy." Freeing your mind is good for business—a potent philosophy, one 2Pac beat him to by 15 years, but without the vivid safari metaphor.
If Xzibit's been watching a lot of Animal Planet during his years off, he's also been reading the paper. On the title track, over Rage Against the Machine-style guitar thrash, the rapper draws parallels between gangster violence and government exploitation of soldiers. More unsettling and equally effective is a soundbite from Staff Sergeant Shilo Harris, a veteran robbed of three fingers and both ears by an IED in Iraq, that's sampled on "Meaning of Life." The moral of resilience—common in rap, but especially central to this album—comes at the end of the song, and in Harris's own words: "The only person that can set you free is yourself." At least 50% of the murders and executions on Napalm have political undertones; count it as progress that Xzibit's threatening enemies with waterboarding and predator drones rather than Glocks and blades. Domestic matters get airtime as well, especially in "Stand Tall": "Right or wrong, if Trayvon was my little man/I woulda take a chainsaw to Zimmerman."
How seriously we're meant to take those threats is a debate as old as rap, but if Robert Christgau can call Eminem's murder fantasies a "satiric, cautionary fiction," then Xzibit should be allowed to channel whatever cultural id he pleases. The album is so lyrically dense that it defies any kind of imposed coherence. It can certainly be a slog. Younger or less attentive listeners may simply be confused by the digs against Eminem and manager Paul Rosenberg, and few clubs will be spinning tracks on which you can almost hear X's brow furrowing. But if the recession has lent a new imperative to the hustle and grind (X isn't the only aging dude who's found himself out of work and in trouble with the IRS), then maybe we can all take a little something from "Forever a G," where Xzibit cuts in on Wiz Khalifa to offer this mantra: "The greatest trick the devil ever put together/Was that self-destruction is better than striving for perfection/I see that doubt can quickly grow and spread like an infection/Initiative to live and use your common sense as a weapon." From a rapper used to weapons of a more semi-automatic variety, this is all alarmingly responsible.